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Decolonising Museums and Exhibitions on the Indigenous Ainu in Japan

Decolonising Museums and Exhibitions on the Indigenous Ainu in Japan

Cotton Coat Made by Japan's Ainu People - American Museum of Natural Histroy - ©AMNH

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Professor Mariko Murata's  presentation (29th May 2023) examines the practice of decolonising museums. It particularly focuses on the museum exhibits related to the Indigenous Ainu and promotes museal consciousness towards the issue of decolonising Ainu culture.

Ainu, the earliest settlers of northern Japan, had been colonised and marginalised by the Japanese for centuries. They were also collected, exhibited, and subjected to othering in expositions and museum exhibitions. Meanwhile, the Ainu people themselves created some collections as part of their ethnic movement. The Ainu hosts also organised ethnic tourism in the Ainu settlements.

In 2020, the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park opened as the first national museum specialising in Ainu culture. While the movement to establish a national museum had started earlier, it became part of the government’s campaign to showcase the diversity of Japanese culture to the international audience only after Japan’s bid for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The museum adopted various methods to decolonise the earlier representation of Ainu culture. However, since its opening, the museum received much criticism, especially due to its approach to storytelling from a first-person perspective of the Ainu. Museum exhibitions are media that convey the museums’ messages directly to the audience; they are also sites of tension, negotiation, and contestation among the stakeholders.

Accordingly, this presentation aims to analyse the aforementioned process in which the complexity of decolonising museums is at stake. It will also assess other museum exhibits on Ainu culture for comparison and measure how museum practices have changed over time.

The meeting also made room for the Brazilian reality of decolonisation, with presentations on museums created by indigenous peoples and the Emanoel Araújo Afro Brasil Museum. The indigenous participants were: Kaingang shaman's assistant Susilene Elias de Melo, one of the people responsible for the Worikg Museum, created from the collection of her grandmother, Jandira Ubelino, in the Vanuíre Indigenous Land, in the municipality of Arco-Íris, SP; and Suzenalson da Silva Santos, a doctoral student in social history at the Ceara Federal University (UFC) and coordinator of the Memorial Kanindé Indigenous Museum, located in the Sitio Fernandes Village, in Aratuba, Ceará (at the Northeast of Brazil).



Mariko Murata (Kansai University)


Ilana Goldstein (Federal University of São Paulo)


Michiko Okano (Federal University of São Paulo)
Sandra Mara Salles (Afro Brasil Museum)
Susilene Elias de Melo (Worikg Museum)
Suzenalson da Silva Santos (Kanindé Museum)